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Arts groups give up on plans to transform Brewhouse

A consortium of arts groups has abandoned plans to set up an arts center in the former Ya Ya Bayou Brewhouse in the city-owned Market Arcade building in downtown Buffalo.

CEPA Gallery, Big Orbit Gallery and the Just Buffalo Literary Center informed the city this week they have decided against transforming the first floor of 617 Main St. to exhibition and theater space.

After a review, the arts groups decided taking on the 8,000-square-foot space was "too risky" a proposition, CEPA Executive Director Lawrence Brose said.

"We saw this as an opportunity worth pursuing, and still see it as a viable project, but the financial risk is too high at this time," Brose said. "We need to keep our eye on the prize and that is to continue strengthening the three arts organizations."

Brose said he still thinks the Market Arcade site, located next door to his organization's offices, has potential as a multi-use space for cultural groups.

The arts consortium had been granted "designated developer" status by the city for a six-month investigation of converting the site of three failed restaurants to nonprofit, cultural use. The cultural organizations originally had put the price tag of retrofitting the complex to the new use at around $300,000, but that estimate swelled to $1.5 million.

With the arts groups out of the picture, the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., which oversees the historic Market Arcade complex, will go to "Plan B," according to Tim Wanamaker, the city's director of strategic planning and BERC president.

"We've had folks approach us about the site, so we've decided to put out a formal request for proposals and see what they have in mind," Wanamaker said.

In addition to restaurant operators who have expressed interest in the space, some arts groups are said to be exploring options similar to those proposed by CEPA, Big Orbit and Just Buffalo.

The BERC is expected to get the ball rolling by voting on issuing a request for proposals at its April meeting.

"Nothing is off the table as far as we're concerned, but we will be taking a very hard look at their business plan. We'll be reviewing it to the nth degree," Wanamaker said.

The city will look for a strong business plan, operator experience and financial capability.

"It's not out of the question that we will require a performance bond to insure the city is better protected in the future regarding tenants of this site," Wanamaker added.

The prime downtown site has sat dark since Sept. 17, when Ya Ya Brew-house closed its doors after a three-year run.

The city's bad luck with the site dates back to 1995, when it signed a 20-year deal with Colorado-based Breckenridge Brew Pub. The Brew Pub closed in August 1998, saddling the city with nearly $1 million in lease and building improvement costs.

The city tried again with Empire Brewing Co. in 1999, only to see the Rochester company exit without warning in 2001.

Ya Ya, run by previously successful local restaurateur Steve Calvaneso, opened in June 2002, but, according to Calvaneso, "lost money every day" it was open. According to Wanamaker, the city has yet to collect back rent from Calvaneso's Ultimate Restaurants company and the matter will be decided in court.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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